You’d like a BBQ pork sandwich with cole slaw and a large iced tea. Would you like any antibiotics with your meat? We didn’t think so. And as it turns out, you’re not alone.
In recent years, many U.S. consumers have joined the all-natural school of thought and are demanding higher standards for their quality of meat. This is in part because some food companies – like Chipotle – are willing to provide it.
If you walk into Chipotle Mexican Grill today, you’ll see a sign that touts their antibiotic, farm-raised beef, chicken and pork. And if you’re like most health-conscious Americans, that makes you feel good. But it wasn’t always this way.
In fact, Chipotle founder Steve Ells – who reports the company is now growing so quickly it opens an average of three new locations a week – didn’t used to sell this high quality of meat. It wasn’t until he picked up an article called “The Lost Taste of Pork” where he learned about the practices of Iowa family gamer Paul Willis, who raises pigs on a pasture the old-fashioned way, that he changed his mind.
According to a recent article in NPR, Ells reached out to Willis to get a sample of his meat – which was raised unlike traditional confined, indoor pigs that were being fed regular doses of antibiotics. Upon tasting the dramatic difference in quality of the pork, Ells began ordering the all-natural meat for his Chipotle stores. And the rest as, they say, is history.
When Chipotle made the initial switch to antibiotic-free pork, it raised the price for their carnitas burritos from $4.50 to $5.50. But despite the jump in price, their sales nearly doubled.
Chipotle’s Chris Arnold said the company wasn’t able to tell if the increase happened because people could taste a difference in the meat, or if it was the in-store marketing about the switch to antibiotic-free meat that did the trick. But regardless of what clicked, the move was a pivotal one for the company which has managed to maintain these high standards since the change was made more than a decade ago.
Credited to Chipotle or not, economists estimate that while antibiotic-free meat currently takes up just two percent of the market, demand is the rise. According to Willis, interest in what he and other natural farmers do has increased dramatically. As a measure of progress, Willis said he was the sole pork farmer for Niman Ranch when he began his work there. But today, there are hundreds. And of that, the farmer is proud because it proves people want livestock that’s raised naturally.
As for whether or not meat containing antibiotics is truly dangerous, Diets In Review Registered Dietitian, Mary Hartley, RD, says that while it isn’t usually an immediate threat to individuals, there can be a potential public health threat. “Even though the meat industry argues against it, there is evidence that antibiotics in livestock feed give rise to antibiotic-resistant germs that can threaten humans,” she said. “Studies have shown how a normal strain of staphylococcus bacteria passed from humans into pigs, where it became a ‘superbug,’ resistant to the antibiotics (tetracycline and methicillin) usually used to treat it, and then the antibiotic-resistant staph jumped back into humans.”
In other words, it’s better to be safe than sorry and avoid antibiotic-containing meats altogether.
Thankfully, Chipotle isn’t the only company jumping on the all-natural bandwagon. Other major food producers such as Hyatt Hotels and catering company Bon Appetit have joined the trend as well. This year, the Hyatt announced that it’s committing to offering only antibiotic-free, naturally-raised meat, poultry and dairy products to its customers.
Although the shift to natural meats can often mean a rise in cost, consumers don’t seem to mind and are far more willing to pay more for higher-quality product than a few dollars less for something with little integrity. Evidence of this is not only coming from Chipotle stores – which will reportedly sell 120 million pounds of naturally raised pork, chicken and beef this year – but also from grocery giants like Wal-Mart, which has started stocking more antibiotic-free beef and poultry products at customer demand.
News of this change is music to our ears, as we appreciate all-natural products just as much as the next health-conscious consumer. Hopefully, as more people begin demanding higher standards for their food, more companies will begin to listen and Chipotle will no longer stand alone in their line of all-natural work.
June 1st, 2012